Business

Broadcast Industry Bill Loses a Big Talker: “Local Choice”

A bill affecting the transmission of broadcast stations over cable and satellite feeds once included a provision that could have led to the end of "bundling" by allowing consumers to pick which stations they wanted. But in the end, the Senate Commerce Committee kept things "clean."

A bill affecting the transmission of broadcast stations over cable and satellite feeds once included a provision that could have led to the end of “bundling” by allowing consumers to pick which stations they wanted. But in the end, the Senate Commerce Committee kept things “clean.”

Consider the bundle untouched—for now.

On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee passed the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA), a bill that allows roughly 1.5 million satellite owners living in remote areas to access broadcast television stations. But left on the table was a much bolder plan: a provision, called “local choice,” that would allow customers to choose which broadcast stations they wanted their cable or satellite plans to include.

The amendment, added to a renewal of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), would have been a first step toward “a la carte” television, allowing for the unbundling of channels in a cable plan.

But the provision made the bill controversial. It was backed by cable groups that have long struggled with retransmission fees, but it became a target of criticism from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and a number of advertising trade groups.

“K Street Just Went Crazy”

In comments to The Hill, committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) noted that the proposal would have been too controversial to get across the finish line. But with the 1996 Telecommunications Act due to get a rewrite, the proposal has planted a seed.

“It’s too big a change to be swallowed,” Rockefeller admitted to the newspaper, but he hinted the basic idea is “going to spread like wildfire.”

Rockefeller added that the provision’s goal has always been to get the industry talking: “We made it sound like it was the focus of the bill, and K Street just went crazy, which is always good. But we knew that we’d have to take it out.”

Modest Reforms Made

While the bill, in the end, left out the big talker, it did include a number of small reforms that were welcomed by the pay-TV industry—including changes to the way that broadcasters negotiate with cable and satellite companies as well as changes to the security equipment that must be included inside set-top boxes.

And things that would have been controversial for the cable industry, such as a ban on integrated set-top boxes, also got pushed aside.

In the end, the bill that left the committee was relatively clean, according to Multichannel News, and the final result was welcomed by industry groups on both sides.

“STAVRA contains several significant provisions that will help curb skyrocketing retrans fees and blackouts, despite broadcasters’ wishes,” said a statement released by the American Television Alliance.

Meanwhile, NAB president and CEO Gordon Smith noted that the association “continued to have some concerns” but said that the bill as a whole represents “significant improvements for local broadcasting that NAB is pleased to see included.”

The bill, a version of which passed the House over the summer, will head to a final vote in the House and the Senate later this year.

(iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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